Watch the Skies! a Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth

by Curtis Peebles
Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 1994, 342 pp., hardcover, $24.95; paper, $6.99.

Of all the books that have found a place on the UFO Bookshelf, none has caused such mixed emotions as Watch the Skies! Flawed in essential ways, yet containing a wealth of informative data, Watch the Skies! must be read in a narrower context than is implied by the title as well as with some necessary assumptions that go unstated.

Curtis Peebles boasts that he has been interested in UFOs for several decades. Yet, he has failed to bring the knowledge gained from this interest to the birth of the flying saucer myth. Nothing explodes as fully formed in the shared, public consciousness as is suggested in this recounting. As Peebles begins, he briefly mentions the 1896-97 airships, the works of Fort, and then goes directly to the ghost rockets and the dubious role of the Shaver Mystery in the UFO myth. (Although Amazing Stories ' readers latched onto the underground "Deros," the role of spaceships in this scenario seems too minor to be a seminal, and hence, important factor in the birth of the myth.) One can argue that the genesis of the flying saucer myth began virtually at any time in recent history. For instance, Peebles doesn't mention the science fiction stories of the 1920s that "invented" spaceships and aliens or the ideas gleaned from Spiritualism in the latter half of the 19th century that led to certain beliefs. Thus, Peebles has either ignored or glossed over the importance of incubation. The seed of the idea that led to the "reality" of flying saucers has an extensive, intricate, and arguably, a highly subjective history. Certainly it is more complex than is contemplated in this work.

It has been said that Peebles has unknowingly written a work on the contamination of ufology. More accurately, what Peebles has given us is a "Top 40" history of the modern UFO myth in America. Just as Billboard magazine charts the progress of the most popular, and therefore, the most talked-about songs, Peebles has documented the pop(ular) knowledge of ufology.

George Earley is among those who have cried foul, stating that Watch the Skies! is "as skewed a picture of saucer history as has ever been painted." And yet this is the history of ufology for the majority of organizational and armchair ufologists alike. Peebles is openly scornful of the manner in which the ideas surrounding UFOs have been cultivated, and although this attitude is usually unwelcome in a work that purports to be a chronicle, he is right on target. Even more welcome are the chapters detailing the machinations of Major Donald Keyhoe and NICAP, in which Peebles, a la Tom Wolfe's journalistic style, seemingly enters the mind of Keyhoe during those critical early days of the modern myth. Most eye-opening is the crucial role of True editor Ken Purdy, who, if we are to accept this account, played a major part in defining the belief proffered by Keyhoe that flying saucers are interplanetary craft and that the government knows this and is covering up this knowledge.

A subplot running throughout the book is how the cultural beliefs of the times reflect those of the ufological subculture. Although extensive analysis would undoubtedly find significant departures of congruence in this comparison, Peebles has noted something which cannot be taken lightly: that as the confidence in government has gradually deteriorated, the more that paranoid notions of government complicity regarding UFOs will become accepted as true. Forget about escalation of hypothesis; this is escalation of paradigm!

Peebles has held up a mirror to the state of ufology and the picture revealed is a tortured image of a community too willing to believe in the fantastic and so conspiracy-minded that it can't look forward for always checking its collective backside for those who plot to suppress the truth.

Peebles may have the distinction of providing ufology's "cod liver oil" book of the 90s. Though it is, perhaps, a bitter pill to swallow, Watch the Skies! is just the medicine to relieve the pressure of bloated egos and gaseous belief systems all too pervasive in ufology. Read this book and call your metaphysician in the morning.

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